Freezing by degrees

Last May the United States House of Representatives reversed its 1982 slim rejection of the bilateral nuclear freeze by passing it overwhelmingly, 278 to 149. Such political support was in recognition of the tidal wave of public pressure for the freeze since it was first published three years ago.

More recently, the momentum of the freeze has abated. The House has rallied round the administration in narrowly passing appropriations for the first 21 MX missiles. The Senate has once again blocked freeze debate by voting last October to table the proposal. Much of this loss of freeze progress can be interpreted, according to Sen. Paul Tsongas (D), as ''an attempt to give the President running room'' with his new ''build-down'' proposal in the strategic arms reduction talks (START).

Yet the arms race continues unabated. Even if the currently suspended negotiations in Geneva are successful, several dangerous trends in weapons development will be unaffected. Both countries will deploy, at vast expense, more accurate and hence destabilizing weapons. Some weapons, particularly cruise missiles, will greatly complicate the task of verifying future arms agreements. Also, major new directions in the arms race have not even been under Soviet-American discussion. Antisatellite weapons and exotic space-based antimissile systems are in various stages of development. When fully deployed, these devices will further destabilize the nuclear arms balance.

The bilateral freeze would stop these trends. By suspending testing, production, and deployment of crucial systems, the freeze would preserve the existing (though perilous) stability and lay the basis for a genuine rollback of the arms race.

In order to renew the forward political momentum of the freeze, we should consider implementing a series of mini-freezes, weapons limits which would normally be subsumed under a comprehensive freeze but would quickly halt the most dangerous weapons trends while we work toward broader agreement. Some of these limits could be introduced almost immediately, since they can be readily verified by existing satellite and other intelligence sources.

A moratorium on flight-testing of ballistic missiles would be a prime candidate for early implementation. This measure, verifiable by existing means, would curb further improvements in missile accuracy. In turn, this would restrain both countries from acquiring superaccurate, first-strike weaponry. Both the Soviet SSX-24 and our MX missile would be restrained equally, together with other systems on both sides.

Another good candidate is a moratorium on testing of antisatellite systems. If systems now under development are perfected, the early-warning satellites of both sides will eventually be put at risk. Although we currently hold the lead in technical sophistication, past experience suggests that the Soviets will match us. If the antisatellite race is stopped now, we reduce the risk that either side will launch a preemptive nuclear attack during a future crisis, through actual or feared loss of vital satellites.

Suspension of underground nuclear testing could begin immediately, followed by a resumption of the negotiations for a Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB). Before the negotiations were suspended in 1980, both sides were close to agreement. The CTB would retard the increasing sophistication of warhead packaging and would curb development of exotic antimissile systems such as the nuclear-pumped laser.

Deployment of certain weapon categories could be suspended. New missiles now on the threshold of deployment will complicate future arms agreements and undermine the present strategic stability. Sea-launched and ground-launched cruise missiles are small and easily hidden; once they are extensively deployed, it will be extremely difficult to verify an agreement to limit their numbers. The Pershing II missile slated for Europe has another dangerous characteristic; its warhead has a ''terminal guidance'' system which will lead to unprecedented accuracy. By threatening command and communication posts and silos, this high accuracy is destabilizing.

Each of these measures could be implemented almost immediately, and readily verified. In addition, any of them could be initiated by a unilateral moratorium on either side. We or the Soviets, with no loss of security on either part, could announce a moratorium on our respective activities, to run for a specified time (perhaps one year). If the other side reciprocated with a corresponding halt in activity, the moratorium could be extended and eventually formalized by treaty.

While implementing these moratoria, it would be important to continue diplomatic and scientific efforts to secure a comprehensive freeze and reductions. In this regard, a very useful step would be the establishment of a Conference of Experts, drawn from the US, the USSR, and other countries. This conference could be set up by the two governments, by their scientific societies , or under UN auspices. Its purpose would be to reach technical agreement on the measures needed to implement a broader freeze. With such agreement, diplomatic efforts would more likely be successful.

There are partial precedents for the proposed moratoria and Conference of Experts. Both were employed during the intense effort which led up to the atmospheric test ban treaty of 1963. The need to control the arms race has become more urgent in the last 20 years; our efforts should be correspondingly greater.

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